When a teary eyed Kim Jong Un trudged beside a hearse carrying the body of his late father, Kim Jong Il, during a December 2011 funeral procession, even the most basic facts about the then-20-something North Korean heir apparent were obscured.
Although little has changed on that front — even his exact age still remains unclear, although he is believed by most observers to be around 37 years old — the North Korean leader has used his ensuing 10-year reign to defy early predictions of a quick demise as the isolated country’s dictator.
Although seen as inexperienced and lacking the support of key regime figures, Kim was able to cement his grip on power by unleashing a campaign of terror early in his reign, purging rivals and executing an estimated hundreds of people deemed threats — including his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek. Kim was also said to have been behind the February 2017 assassination of one of the last remaining potential challengers, his half-brother Kim Jong Nam, allegedly ordering the assassination of his sibling with the deadly VX nerve agent in a crowded Malaysian airport.
Today, Kim not only remains firmly in power but he has also solidified his place in North Korean history over the last 10 years by realizing his father’s and grandfather’s long-cherished but unaccomplished goal: turning the country into a feared nuclear weapons state believed capable of deterring its great enemy, the United States, with its “treasured sword.”
That accomplishment has had broad ramifications for the region.
“Kim’s technological advances and demonstrated capability to potentially hit the United States with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile locks in Washington’s attention, which in turn affords him leverage to shape and drive the relationship with his neighbors,” Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst and the current U.S. deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, wrote in her 2020 book “Becoming Kim Jong Un.”
But the achievement has also been a double-edged sword, as biting sanctions imposed in 2016 over the nuclear program and the effects of a COVID-induced closure of the country’s borders have taken their toll.
“Between COVID and the international sanctions regime, the economy is struggling and not remotely living up to the expectations he set a few years ago,” said Van Jackson, a former U.S. Defense Department official now at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
“Desperate conditions, if not improved, could lead to all manner of domestic instability eventually,” he said. “Korea-watchers and governments don’t really take that prospect seriously enough.”
For Kim, taking the reins of the country was a trial by fire: He was not afforded the 20-year grooming period his father had before becoming leader. Although he is believed to have had several years of informal preparation after Kim Jong Il suffered a debilitating heart attack in 2008, he did not formally assume the “supreme commandership” of the 1.2 million-strong Korean People’s Army — the backbone of the regime — until 13 days after his father’s Dec. 17, 2011, death.
Considering his age and lack of experience, some analysts forecast that Kim would merely be a puppet as his father’s inner circle pulled the strings from behind the scenes. Others predicted that Kim would bring at least some degree of economic and social reform to the country because of his youth and exposure to Western liberalism during his adolescent years in Switzerland.
But Kim would quickly show a penchant for defying predictions.
In a sign of things to come, the newly minted leader in April 2012 oversaw the launch of a satellite that the U.S. and its allies said had violated the terms of the so-called leap day agreement that exchanged food aid for a moratorium on uranium enrichment and missile testing, and a return of inspectors to the North’s Yongbyon nuclear site.
The deal — which had first been negotiated under his father and was sealed in February of that year as a kind of insurance policy for the younger Kim — was effectively dead just two months into his reign.
Days later, in his first major public speech, Kim delivered an even clearer signal, as he doubled down on the country’s nuclear weapons program by reaffirming his father’s songun (“military-first”) policy, proclaiming that “the days are gone forever when our enemies could blackmail us with nuclear bombs.”
Within the first few months of his rule, Kim had already dashed the nascent hopes that he would be a different kind of North Korean leader.
“A lot of this was wishful thinking from the same analysts who predicted that liberal internationalism and democracy would become the new normal after the end of the Cold War,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia. “This line of thinking also emerged from those who didn’t quite grasp how resilient and powerful the dynastic dynamics are in North Korea and how effectively the regime has embedded totalitarianism in citizens’ everyday lives.”
The moves would set the stage for Kim’s dealings with the U.S. under President Barack Obama as the White House entered into a policy of “strategic patience,” under which Washington ratcheted up sanctions and denied engagement in hopes that Pyongyang would return to the table to deal away its nuclear weapons.
Critics, however, lambasted the policy for having the opposite effect, with Kim ordering a drastic expansion of his nuclear and missile development programs — and effectively being given the space to do so by the U.S.
Kim’s ‘treasured sword’
Although Kim in March 2013 announced a signature policy known as byungjin, or “parallel advance,” that focused on simultaneously developing his country’s economy and its nuclear weapons program, the North Korean leader’s focus on the latter was clear even before the policy came into play.
Kim began taking aim at a nuclear breakout almost immediately after taking power, updating the North’s constitution to declare the country a nuclear weapons state in May 2012 and testing a bomb in February 2013. He followed this up with progressively more powerful explosions in January and September of 2016 and in September 2017.
Highlighting the tremendous progress North Korea’s scientists had made in creating ever more destructive weapons, Japan estimated that the 2017 nuclear test had a yield of 160 kilotons — 10 times more powerful than the U.S. bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945.
But nuclear bombs alone wouldn’t be enough. To complete his arsenal, he needed to marry North Korean missile technology with a warhead small enough to threaten the continental U.S.
While North Korea had long been known for its saber-rattling weapons tests, often designed to stir tensions and then reap concessions, Kim took this approach to an entirely new level. Under his leadership, the country ramped up missile tests, conducting nearly 90 through November 2017 — almost three times the number of launches under his father and grandfather combined.
In 2017 alone, Kim conducted 21 missile tests, including two that overflew Japan and three that experts say were capable of striking the United States.
That year would see him trade barbs with U.S. President Donald Trump and bring the two countries to the brink of a nuclear war that then-U.S. defense chief Jim Mattis feared would “incinerate a couple million people.”
Then, after the stunning test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in November of that year, Kim declared that his isolated country had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
Kim now had the leverage he needed to make his debut on the global diplomatic stage.
Kim the diplomat
On Jan. 1, 2018, Kim used a New Year’s address to kick-start a diplomatic gambit. The speech was full of implicit threats, including a mention of a “nuclear button” on his desk and the need to “mass produce” nuclear warheads and missiles.
But it also raised the intriguing prospect of sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, early in the year — a suggestion that would ultimately see his sister and trusted adviser, Kim Yo Jong, become the first Kim family member to set foot in the South since the Korean War.
The move was the spark that set off a flurry of summitry for Kim throughout 2018, including meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But it was Kim’s historic meeting that June with Trump in Singapore — the first-ever summit between sitting leaders of the two countries — that capped his coming-out party.
In Singapore, Kim — who had months earlier been derided by Trump as a “little rocket man” ready to press his “nuclear button” — set aside his reputation as a cruel and trigger-happy dictator, relishing his newfound role as a statesman who was apparently open to the idea of relinquishing his nuclear arsenal.
But while Trump basked in the fanfare surrounding the historic summit, showering Kim with praise and touting the possibility of a denuclearization “grand bargain,” longtime observers were skeptical that the North Korean leader would ever part with his nuclear weapons, which they said he viewed as integral to his regime’s survival.
The views were prescient, it would turn out, with a second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February 2019 collapsing over disagreements on sanctions relief demanded by the North Koreans and a U.S. push for a “big deal” that would see Pyongyang give up all its nuclear weapons.
An impromptu follow-up meeting at the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas in June 2019 also failed to break the deadlock. And as talks remained at loggerheads for more than a year, Kim saw any fresh chance of appealing to Trump’s ego for concessions evaporate after the president was defeated by Joe Biden in the November 2020 U.S. election.
In the end, despite the pomp and ceremony, Kim’s whirlwind summit tour resulted in little more than maintaining the status quo for his country’s nuclear program and its tense relationship with the U.S.
Sanctions, COVID-19 and the economy
Indeed, as Kim enters his second decade in power Friday, it’s unlikely he will have much to celebrate.
While he has worked to craft an image of himself as a figure who cares about the lives of ordinary citizens, nuclear sanctions and pandemic-prompted border closures have wreaked havoc on North Korea’s economy. According to data released by South Korea’s central bank, the North’s economy was estimated to have contracted 4.5% year-on-year in 2020 — the nation’s worst contraction since 1997.
Although North Korea has not reported a single case of COVID-19, experts remain unconvinced. Whatever the truth, the near-total border closure has reportedly forced Kim and his regime to grapple with food shortages, soaring prices of goods and a dearth of medicine that have accelerated the spread of diseases.
At a rare ruling party congress in January, Kim unveiled a new five-year economic plan after admitting his previous plan had faltered due to sanctions and the pandemic. The perfect storm of challenges has left Kim with little choice but to acknowledge his regime’s shortcomings and the “grim” situation facing the country, including the growing food crisis.
“When Kim Jong Un came to power, his greatest threats were internal, but in 10 years he has managed to dramatically consolidate control,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “The North Korean economy, however, is far worse off because Kim underestimated international resolve to maintain sanctions as long as he refuses to denuclearize, and he overestimated domestic resources while enacting the world’s harshest self-imposed pandemic isolation.”
Still, despite the plethora of challenges facing Kim, analysts say it’s highly unlikely that these will seriously threaten his regime — at least in the short-term.
While Kim’s political and military positions are far more secure than a decade ago, the long-term costs of maintaining these positions will continue to pile up, said Sungmin Cho, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
The North Korean leader is in a better position for the short and medium term, “but not so much in the long run, economically, which will ultimately have a negative impact on political stability,” he said.
Biden and nuclear talks
As for the stalled denuclearization talks with the U.S., Biden has appeared far less interested in the issue compared to his predecessor as he seeks to avoid upsetting the fragile status quo while shifting the U.S. focus toward China. Still, the Biden team has repeatedly offered to meet unconditionally, though Pyongyang has rejected those entreaties, demanding that the U.S. first drop its “hostile policy” toward the North.
Although Kim has not tested a nuclear bomb or long-range missile since 2017, he has used the ensuing years to build up an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of both medium- and shorter-range weapons that analysts say are designed to overwhelm and evade the defenses of the U.S. and allied forces in South Korea and Japan.
In one particularly striking period in September, the North unveiled several new weapons systems, including a long-range cruise missile believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to Japan, a missile that can be launched from a train car and what Pyongyang said was a hypersonic gliding vehicle.
In a speech the following month, Kim hinted at what could be expected in the near future as he spoke of a need to “steadfastly safeguard peace” in response to Washington’s “hostile policies” by “steadily developing … (a) powerful defense capability.”
According to Griffith University’s O’Neil, Kim is likely “to continue to invest significantly in diversifying North Korea’s nuclear and missile force mix, irrespective of what, if any, olive branches Pyongyang extends.”
“There is nowhere in the world where the consistent logic of realism and utility of military force in foreign policy is more compelling,” he said.
Key moments in the decadelong rule of Kim Jong Un
As North Korea’s Kim Jong Un enters his second decade in power, here’s a look at some of the key moments during his rule of the nuclear-armed country.
Dec. 17, 2011: Kim Jong Il dies of a heart attack at the age of 69, setting the stage for his son Kim Jong Un, labeled the “great successor” during an official announcement two days later, to rule the country.
Dec. 30, 2011: Kim is named “supreme commander” of North Korea’s 1.2 million-strong military, the first in a series of key posts he will acquire in the coming months.
April 13, 2012: Kim oversees the unsuccessful launch of a satellite that the U.S. says uses banned missile technology that violates the terms of the so-called leap day agreement, a food-for-freeze deal sealed between the two sides just two months earlier.
April 15, 2012: The North Korean leader delivers his first major public speech, signaling that he intends to double down on his country’s nuclear weapons program despite international pressure.
Feb. 12, 2013: North Korea conducts its third nuclear test, the first under Kim Jong Un.
March 31, 2013: Kim Jong-un announces his byungjin policy of simultaneously pursuing nuclear and economic development.
December 2013: Kim orders the dramatic execution of his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, on charges of treason.
December 2014: The U.S. accuses North Korea of being behind the massive hacking of Sony Pictures over its film “The Interview,” a comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim.
May 2015: South Korea’s spy agency says Kim ordered the execution of Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol for insubordination and sleeping during a meeting Kim presided over. The grisly alleged execution, said to have been carried out with an anti-aircraft gun, is never confirmed.
January and September 2016: The North carries out its fourth and fifth nuclear tests as it seeks to master the miniaturization technology needed to mount a warhead on a missile.
May 2016: The ruling Workers Party of Korea holds its first congress in 36 years, during which Kim is elected party leader.
Feb. 13, 2017: Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un, is assassinated at a Malaysian airport after the deadly VX nerve agent is smeared on his face.
July-September 2017: North Korea conducts its first flight test of an intercontinental ballistic missile and later launches two intermediate range missiles over Japan.
Aug. 8, 2017: U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea if it endangers the United States.
Sept. 3, 2017: North Korea conducts its sixth nuclear test, which it claims was of a hydrogen bomb designed to be mounted on a long-range missile.
Nov. 28, 2017: North Korea test-fires a new ICBM, with Kim declaring his country’s nuclear force complete.
Jan. 1, 2018: Kim uses a New Year’s address to broach sending a delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, kicking off a diplomatic gambit.
April 2018: Kim meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The two leaders hold two more summits.
June 2018: Kim and Trump meet in Singapore for the first summit between sitting leaders of the two countries.
February 2019: Kim meets with Trump in Hanoi for their second summit. The meeting collapses over disagreements on sanctions relief and what North Korea would be willing to give up in return.
June 2019: Kim and Trump hold an impromptu meeting at the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas, but the meeting fails to produce a breakthrough.
January 2020: North Korea closes its borders amid the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Nov. 3, 2020: Joe Biden defeats Trump in the U.S. presidential election, ending the Trump-Kim era of engagement.
January 2021: Kim admits his five-year economic plan has failed, but also threatens to expand his nuclear arsenal in the face of the United States’ “hostile policy.”
April: Kim says his country faces its “worst-ever situation” amid a potent combination of the pandemic, crippling sanctions and natural disasters.
September: North Korea tests several new advanced weapons systems, including a long-range cruise missile, a missile that can be launched from a train and a hypersonic weapon.
October: Kim uses a rare defense exhibition to vow to respond to Washington’s alleged hostility by “steadily developing” a “powerful defense capability.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.